As I watched Leonard Bernstein conduct Beethoven’s 9th Symphony with the combined orchestras from East and West Berlin following the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, tears coursed down my face. My 7-year old son Chris asked why I was crying, and I said, “People that thought they would always have to hate each other are making beautiful music together.”
Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)
Leonard Bernstein was one of the most successful American musicians, especially in the field of classical music. He was a pianist, conductor, composer, author, and teacher. Among his works are the musical West Side Story and his stunning Mass.
Bernstein’s career was shaped by many people, most notably the composer Aaron Copeland and the conductor Serge Koussevitzky. His conducting career rapidly advanced, especially after an emergency fill-in without rehearsal with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra broadcast from Carnegie Hall when he was an assistant conductor. In 1945 he became Music Director of the New York City Symphony Orchestra, followed by many turns as guest conductor for orchestras around the world. Then in 1958 he was named Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, a position he held formally until 1969, and after continued with the Philharmonic as “laureate conductor.”
Bernstein’s music career would take extensive space to document, but for this peacemaking music festival we focus on one event. Bernstein had spent a lot of time in the 1970s with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra including conducting the complete cycle of Beethoven’s symphonies. He also conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in a special charity concert for Amnesty International. When the Berlin Wall came down in late 1989, Bernstein joined in a celebration that was broadcast live across the world.
How symbolic and transformative could it be! An American Jew led musicians from East and West Berlin in Beethoven’s 9th Symphony on Christmas Day shortly after the Wall had been breached. In Beethoven’s climactic final movement which includes Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” Bernstein amended the text at its triumphant cry of “Freude” (joy) to “Freiheit” (freedom). “I’m sure that Beethoven would have given us his blessing,” Bernstein said. Beethoven’s “Ode to Freedom” became the soundtrack to commemorate the East German revolution.
Watch Bernstein Conducting Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in the “Freedom Concert” in Berlin in 1989: